Rapid industrialization and modernization of South Korea resulted in the class divide and evident social dysfunction as communication became broken down, and the working class was isolated. “Tribulations of two young men, symbols of the minjung, who have been cut off from their families and society due to a breakdown in traditional Korean social values and morality” (Standish, 1993, p. 81). Society and life forced the family of these young men to engage in activities such as prostitution or political activism, which was went against established traditions.
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Therefore, their future was inherently condemned despite their hopes and ambitions. Many lower-class youths were influenced by dreams of success and a life outside of South Korea, which showed little sign of stability. However, there was an abundant amount of societal and economic barriers which sought to eliminate practically every opportunity for growth, even in their home country.
Chelsea and Mansu are highly symbolic, with various plot points contributing to character development and the struggles of their social roles. The protagonists exposed to Western influences begin to idolize and connect with specific symbols. “The process of subjective activation and reactivation through a complex transaction between symbolic and imaginary significations, transactions that give rise to an illusory sense of unity with the field of the other and coherence in narrative meaning” (Kim, 2004, p.137).
This is seen as Chilsu takes a love interest to see Rocky IV, visualizing his own rise from the bottom and an immaculate victory to win over Ji-na’s heart. Throughout the film, the young men attempt to assume an identity other than their own through pretense. They create an image in their heads to a point where it begins to unify with their reality. However, the traumatic past and social status continue to haunt the protagonists as they find themselves frustratingly marginalized from society. Eventually, they come a full circle and are forced to face the realities of a country undergoing an intricate period of political uncertainty as the government is attempting to control a society striving towards democratization.
Chelsea and Mansu is inherently a satirical film, attempting to highlight the deepening inequality in the economic development of South Korea. The young men post billboards of products they can never afford and view the high-rises of the industrial city, knowing that such housing for an entirely different social class. In the end, it is ironically their outcry at privilege, which results in the demise of the characters. The director attempts to portray that the young men’s social class lives in a completely different plane of dimension than the rest of society.
The confusion over their actions and a lack of communication are symbolic of the socio-political aspects of struggles portrayed in this film. A simple expression of frustration is viewed as dissidence. It can be argued that society, similar to the protagonists, is exceptionally focused on portraying itself a certain way (especially with the Seoul Olympics and the Western attention on the country). However, it lacks the understanding to fix the underlying issues which are ensuring the deepening class divide.
Kim, K.H. (2004). The remasculinization of Korean cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Standish, I. (1993). Korean cinema and the new realism: Text and context. East-West Film Journal, 7(2), 54-80.